In this column, Amos Lamb will take you through the wonderful world of animation. Exploring what makes it such an appealing genre/medium for all ages, with the focus spanning from the mainstream animation studios like Disney & Studio Ghibli, to more obscure animation such as Japanese OVA’s, British claymation, Czechoslovakian stop-motion and everything in-between.
Marking not only the first Studio Ghibli film not to be directed by Miyazaki, but also a stark departure from the colourful, vibrant and ultimately hopefully aesthetic of the rest of Ghibli’s canon: With Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata adapts Akiyuki Nosaka short-story of the same name. Which tells the story of two young children struggling to survive in war-time Japan after their town is decimated by a firebombing attack by the Americans. The original short-story was semi-autobiographical to begin with, as Nosaka lost his sisters and adopted father in the wake of the attacks on Japan, but the film is also personal to Takahata whose family also suffered during the firebombing on Okayama City.
It’s clear that this is a film that both deserved, and needed to be made. Nosaka himself said that he was offered numerous live-action adaptations of his short story, but felt that the story could not be done justice, or that the “barren, scorched earth that’s to be the backdrop of the story” would be impossible to create, and was ultimately surprised to be offered an animated adaptation of his source material. But much like Barefoot Gen (not-so-subtle plug, you can read my first column on this website for a more in-depth look at Barefoot Gen and its sequel here), the animated medium was the only viable option to achieve this setting, and convey the horrors of war that, both Nosaka and Takahata wanted to achieve in this story. But the film handles the subject matter so delicately and with such care and heart that, for me, it really succeeds in highlighting the horrors of the war, and the impact it had on the most vulnerable citizens.
The film opens with the haunting line: “21st September 1945. That was the night I died”, delivered by our main character Seita. The rest of the film is told in a straightforward narrative, but with the overarching idea that we’re seeing Seita passing over to the after-life, looking back at the events that led to his untimely death. It’s important to note that Japan surrendered on the 2nd September 1945, and thus this film isn’t just focused on the War itself, but the immediate aftermath, and is highlighting that the suffering for the Japanese people didn’t end when the War ended, but continued in its wake.
One of the most interesting elements of Grave of the Fireflies, is how despite the conditions and suffering that both Seita, and his younger sister Setsuko, experience; the film is still filled with scenes of them seemingly having fun in the face of their misery. Moments like the firefly light show in the shelter, or when they first buy their own cooking utensils, all manage to convey the childhood wonder and innocence of these characters, despite being harshly juxtaposed with the terrible malnutrition, poverty and isolation the two children suffer throughout the film. When asked if the children were “having fun” in the film, Takahata responded that they were simply “enjoying their days”, which I think is perfectly captured in the animation. The pain and suffering these kids experience is never gone, it’s always present either through their own discomfort, or by the nation-wide discomfort surrounding them. One of the best scenes that illustrates this point is the beach scene, where the two children enjoy their time playing in the water while other citizens gather salt water from the sea due to the lack of supplies & rations. Not only is the scene tainted by the fact the other people need to collect sea water to supplement their own rations, but also the state of their bodies, marked by malnutrition and bug bites. The scene perfectly captures the juxtaposition of the harsh realities of their situation, with the innocent and naturally playful wonder of the children. But the real tragedy of the film comes through how the Japanese society at large lets down the two children, more than anything. After they lose their mother, the children are left to fend for themselves, with no substantial sympathy given to them, and when they are shown some it is never enough for these two children almost constantly on the verge of death. While there are examples throughout the film, even within the opening scene as Seita lays dying in a train station, the two most powerful for me are when the fellow children find their make-shift home, and during the time they stay at their Aunt’s house. I’ll talk about the latter first; the children travel to their distant aunt and uncle’s home, and while initially welcomed at first, the aunt starts to resent their presence in the wake of tighter rationing. Despite Seita traveling back to his now destroyed house to collect the provisions they buried in their garden before the attack, which he happily shares with his new guardians, and reluctantly selling their mother’s possessions for more rice, the Aunt becomes harsher with the children, limiting their meals and berating them for not doing anything to help with the war effort. This whole sequence is so emotionally taxing, as on one level the Aunt can easily be seen as a villain, taking from the kids without giving their fair share back, but on a deeper level we can see this familial fracture as a result of the mounting pressure and uncertainty that the war effort led to. It’s easy to dismiss the Aunt as a straightforward villain, but personally I don’t think the film wants to vilify her specifically, but rather highlight the drive to survive that real people had to turn too in the unimaginable horrors of the war, even at the expense of others. I’m not saying that we can’t condemn the Aunt character, and what she does, but I also think there is an incredible amount of sympathy for her character instilled in the film, despite her actions. The second scenario is when the local kids find Seita and Setsuko’s make-shift home, and mock and ridicule their belongings with disregard to the fact that people lived there. Admittedly a less consequential scene, but I really think it drives home the point Takahata is making with Grave of the Fireflies, which is to show the impact the war had on communities on a personal scope. The sympathy and empathy we expect to see from the adult characters is largely missing, but the fact these children can’t even empathise with all their childish naivety, is somehow even more tragic all things considered.
There is a reason this film is often included in both ‘best animated films’ lists, and ‘best war films’ lists. While Takahata has maintained this film is not an “anti-war” film, it’s easy to see it as one, for me I would say that despite purposefully not focusing on the war and keeping the story very personal, it still carries significant anti-war messages. But while this can be debated, there is no denying that the way Takahata and his team capture the harsh realities of war, alongside the beautiful humanity in the face of suffering, through the gorgeous animation and composition is a feat that few have managed to achieve. The film breaks my heart every single time I watch it, but I can’t help but come back to it constantly just because of how incredible it is.